Monday, February 11, 2013

Friendship in Small Groups

I'm reading A Life Together by Seraphim Sigrist, a Bishop in the Orthodox Church who learned what it meant to follow Jesus in underground home churches in the former Soviet Union. This little book is a gem with a message forged under great pressure and resistance. In the introduction he writes:

"Now, if the gift of ourselves and the ability to stand on our own feet is a first discovery in community, I would add a second discovery and gift found in community. Our continuing agreement to share life together opens out into deeper and deeper oneness with the others of our community. We live into a friendship in a full sense that Jesus spoke of when he said, 'From now on I call you friends.'
     Community is an ongoing entering into friendship, for the mystery of community is that of friends, and the giving of our lives for our friends. This friendship is the ongoing gift of the ever deeper realization of the law of sharing and exchange, living Jesus' command to 'bear one another's burdens.'
    The friends who have given their lives to each other in the Lord these are the two or three who agree, these are the disciples gather with one accord at Pentecost" (14).

When I read these words, I recognize that he is talking about a lived experience, not about an idealistic dream about what church could or should be. He is not talking about the development of a small group methodology that will connect 100% of the people who attend on Sunday. He is not talking about a strategy to get people to join a small group for six weeks. He's not even talking about a structure for mobilizing community for mission. 

It is easy to idolize the success of the organization of the church to such a degree that we sacrifice the core of the Gospel, loving people to the point of living in friendship with them. This is a subtle trap where the organization takes priority over the people. To be honest, I must confess that I've fallen prey to this trap. I've found myself viewing friendship as unnecessary unless it contributed to the growth and success of the local church. In other words, I have practiced friendship in such a way that I only related to people that strategically advanced the goals of the local church. As a result, I have undermined the core of friendship itself. I have treated people as a means to achieving the goal of advancing the local church. If someone was not committed to that end, then the friendship less important.

Am I being overly critical? I don't think so. Let's be honest. When was the last time we measured the kind of friendship we experienced as a part of Christ's body? We measure a lot of other stuff: the number of small groups, the number of people added to small groups, the number of groups that multiplied, and the number of small group leaders that we train. These small group measurements reflect what we measure in the church at large: attendance on Sunday, multi-site church services started, discipleship classes graduates, baptisms. But we can invest our lives and develop our ministries around increasing the numbers and miss the fact that we are pulling the rug out from under a life of friendship in Christ, a core element to the way Jesus, Paul and others lived out the early Kingdom of God movement. 

I'm not proposing that we need to forgo the statistical measurements listed above. I'm wondering if we are missing out on something deeper, something much richer. How can we measure friendship in our communities? Ideas?

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